Episodes in the life of Don Shirley have been dramatised in the Golden Globe winning film Green Book directed by Peter Farrelly. The Shirley family according to some news reports, however, are horrified by the storylines involving the pianist who died aged 86 in 2013.
While you could say unkindly that Don Shirley was a one hit wonder, his approach was certainly ambitious. Not only did he write a cello concerto but he also composed an opera and a tone poem based on James Joyce’s famously unfilmable Finnegans Wake. In Green Book the scenario goes like this: set in the deep south in the 1960s — music for the film incidentally is by the erstwhile José James 2011 Monk prize winning pianist Kris Bowers — a bunch of musicians are on tour including Shirley and a group of white men threaten Don’s life... the Green Book in the title is a guide for black travellers to avoid racist places in the South to save themselves from violence or the Klan. The film picks up on Shirley’s hiring nightclub bouncer Tony “Lip” Vallelonga as his driver and bodyguard and the dramatic events that ensue.
Shirley as a teen performed a piano concerto with the Boston Pops and the London Philharmonic Orchestra but later abandoned music to study psychology in Chicago before resuming his career. He had a minor hit with his arrangement of the 1920s traditional folk song attributed to Avery Robinson ‘Water Boy,’ highly unusually in the setting Shirley using a bass played by Ken Fricker and cello played by Juri Taht format. He, Fricker, and Taht played together for many years. The “hiding” song has a rolling momentum to it in this instrumental take and a lilting low register quality to it Shirley did not like the word “trio” however as a name for his group. In 1982 he told the New York Times: ''Basically, the reason for my instrumentation is that I’m an organist. I write in the tenor clef, alto clef and soprano clef for my cellist, giving me a whole range. Therefore, we are really not a trio. That’s why I can't stand the word trio. We are not a trio. We are three men trying to be one instrument.”